An interview with Ron Cook, American president of the historic Florentine espresso machine company La Marzocco.
Ron Cook is always excited to talk about the company he runs, and on a recent warm fall day, while he fiddled with the latest deluxe Marzocco espresso machine model GB/5 (that after a lot of grinding and whirring ultimately produced two superb espressos), Mr. Cook recounted the story behind the American acquisition of this local Florentine institution, as well as his own experiences as an expatriate here in Florence.
About 15 minutes up Via Bolognese, overlooking the city of Florence, is the La Marzocco espresso machine factory. First founded in 1927, it is still in operation today, making some of the highest quality espresso machines the world over. It has even become the exclusive supplier of traditional espresso machines for the largest coffee shop chain, Starbucks. And although this historic Florentine company has maintained its production entirely at its original factory on a hill perched above the city, it is no longer the family run business it once was. In fact, just over ten years ago it was bought out entirely by a group of mostly American associates. But upon acquisition, the new owners promised to keep production local, as well as to maintain the traditional high quality of the company’s products.
How did La Marzocco start?
The company was founded in 1927 by two brothers, the Bambi brothers. It was down in Le Cure area at that point, and in 1959 they needed to expand so they moved up here and built this factory.
When was the company bought by American investors?
What happened was that in the early to mid 90s, Starbucks started buying a substantial number of our machines and started expanding. We were the only, and still are the only, traditional espresso machines that they use in their stores. And about 1993, Kent Bakke (who is an American and was already the importer for Marzocco in the U.S. for about 10 to 15 years before) came to Piero and said, “Look, this company Starbucks is growing and they really like our machines and we’re going to need a lot more machines than you’re giving us.” And Piero said, “I can’t make them here, you’re going to have to set up an assembly plant in Seattle, and, by the way, you have to buy the company.” That’s sort of paraphrased I’m sure, but basically he is the last member of the family. He doesn’t have any children. And he wanted to see the company continue as a company here in Tuscany, and he wanted the name Marzocco continued. So Kent put together a group of investors, most of them from the U.S., and bought the vast majority of the company in 1994. There was a written agreement, and there was also a handshake agreement that we would keep a factory in Tuscany and it would have precedence over any other assembly point that we would build, that the name would remain Marzocco, and that we would provide for everybody who was here as long as we could. In other words, not to buy it, take the name, get the technologyand go to the States. And we absolutely respected that. You know, at first there was a huge sale of machines to Starbucks. Then they started going to fully automatic machines just because they can’t train enough baristas to make a good coffee. When the demand started to decrease, we had to do something, so we closed the factory in Seattle. Basically we kept this one.
So now it’s an entirely American operated company?
I came here in 1995 as the general manager. About 3 years ago I was made president of the company. We didn’t come in like many
American companies would and just say, “this is how it’s done; we’re taking over.” We did everything possible to make sure that we were considerate of those who were here and who had been working here for a long time, so we could ensure that they kept their jobs, so we could help them fit into, to the best of their abilities, the pattern of growth we wanted to see. In ten years, we haven’t fired anybody, we haven’t lost anyone. We have one or two that have retired and one or two that are approaching retirement, but we just make a point of helping them fit in. We respect a quality way of doing business, the quality of the machinery, and taking care of the people who work here.
You live here full time?
I’ve been here for ten years. Sono in regola. Permesso di Soggiorno.
What do you think of living here in Florence?
Ho trovato l’America in Italia. [I’ve found America in Italy]. We’re very comfortable living here, and, having lived outside of the U.S. for ten years, I think it would be a challenge to go back.
So you plan on staying?
This is home. We owe it to our son, who is 15. We moved here when he was 5. We owe it to him to stay in one place.
Are you happy raising your child here? How are the facilities and schools?
Yes. We come from Manhattan where the private schools are better, best, and somewhere above there. And international schools in general have to cater to a broader range of students. But I think there’s a more well rounded education here. Students aren’t as driven to excel as they are in the American system, especially in Manhattan private schools. But I think Charlie will have a lot more than a lot of those kids. He’ll be trilingual, he’s getting a good education, and I think he’ll just be a more well rounded person. Extracurricular activities are limited. But Charlie plays tennis; he’s done some rowing at the Canottieri. There aren’t as many activities going on herethe other side of that coin is that kids in the States are pressured to do too many things.
Do you have any advice for American parents here?
I think it’s tough for families who are here for only 2 or 3 years because it’s hard to break in. You don’t get involved with the culture. There are a number of clubs – soccer is obviously the big thing. There’s rugby, and tennis, andbiking. There’s plenty of stuff to do if you just search it out. Hiking. 15 minutes up the Via Bolognese you’re in the Apennines, and there are a ton of trails through here. Get back to your basics. Father and mother hiking too.
You could take a field trip every weekend or you could get on Ryanair and go to Paris; you could go to London. There are a ton of capital cities to go visit, and two or three years isn’t enough to touch them. There’s plenty to do, it’s just different.
What are some of the focal points of the American community here?
I think the biggest two are the American school and the American church. Then you’ve got Network and the Tuscan American Association. We were very involved with our church in New York, which happened to be Episcopal and named St. James. I knew that we needed anchors when we got here and that the American church was going to have to be one of them.
How about with the Italian community, where have you found your connecting point?
Through the school. The International school is a third American, a third Italian, and a third other cultures. Charlie has a lot of friends who are Italian. He’s one of the few kids who gets invited to the Italian kids’ functions because he is bilingual. We also know people in the neighbourhood who we walk dogs with. Italians, and Florentines especially, tend to socialise with the kids they went to kindergarten with, but that’s fine, we’re not looking to break into anything. If you want a relationship with Italian families you can do it, but it’s tougher.
What do you like about living in Florence?
I like living in the middle of history. If you live in town, it’s in your face every day. It’s incredible. I was on the board of the school and we were looking for a second campus, and one of the places that we looked at was on Costa San Giorgio. There was a military school there, which backed up on the Boboli Gardens. So there are these Colonels and Majors taking me around and one of them opens a door, saying, “Don’t go down there because it’s dangerous, but look at the tunnel at the bottom there.” Two or three flights down there’s this tunnel, which is a tunnel that goes from the Uffizi, under the mountain, all the way up to the Forte di Belvedere. It was an escape route to the Fortezza. Most people don’t even know it’s there, but I’ve seen it. You know, you go to dinner in someone’s house and it’s in an old palazzo where something that’s part of history happened. Or to be able to go down into the Medici Chapels and to the little place where Michelangelo’s sketches are on the walls. That’s very special to me. That, and the countryside is beautiful, and the food is wonderful.
What are some of your favourite spots?
The Medici Chapel, San Marco, the Bargello. La Marzocco comes from Il Marzocco, and the original statue is in the Bargello, the one by Donatello. I stay away from the Uffizi because of the crowds.